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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs?

I enjoyed Philip J. Senter’s thorough explanation of why claims of fire-breathing dinosaurs are unrealistic (July/August 2017). The idea that such an article should be necessary seemed almost comical (akin to Skeptical Inquirer running a cover story on “Why Reindeer Can’t Really Fly”) until I read that claims about fire-breathing dinosaurs appear in some seventh-grade biology textbooks. The fact that home-schooled pupils should be using such textbooks is bad enough, but the idea that they are employed by any school in receipt of state funding ought to be a source of national shame. Of course it isn’t hard to believe such propositions are held by the same people who claim Earth is 6,000 years old. As Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, “To get an idea of the scale of this error, it is the equivalent to believing that the distance from New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards.”

I hope for their sake that the children learning about dragons in biology are getting their information on American geography from a very different source.

A thought on “Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs”: Phillip J. Senter well demolished the idea of any kind of fire-breathing animal. But the legend of the beast spans several Eurasian cultures and seems to have been around for ages. There could have been some animal that, as perceived by primitive people, appeared to breathe fire or whose description over vast time has morphed into that image. This is especially imaginable if the legend began when people were not even sure what fire was.

Numerous members of different animal kingdoms produce a wide spectrum of dangerous chemicals, from snake and spider venom, toxic amphibian slime, and bee stings to skunk spray. One of my favorites is the green heron, a medium-sized primitive bird that has miraculously continued to exist, using regurgitation as a defense means. If a large mysterious creature in the misty past, possibly even a flying one, sprayed a burning, corrosive fluid upon prey or predators, perhaps even a red mist, that could be grounds for the present-day dragon legend.

This critter does not seem to be around these days, and fossils do not well preserve soft tissue, so if the evidence is obscured we may not find any signs of it. The adage that where there’s smoke, there’s fire is not always true but often is.

Philip Senter replies to MacNeill:

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